Dead Man’s Cellphone


“Dead Man’s Cellphone” by Sarah Ruhl, directed by American director and educator Julie Wharton. The pictures show over 20 Zimbabwean actors at Alliance Francaise, both experienced and aspiring being taken through an audition process by Julie Wharton

An incessantly ringing cell phone in a quiet café. A stranger at the next table who has had enough. And a dead man-with a lot of loose ends. So begins Dead Man’s Cell Phone, a wildly imaginative new comedy by MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient and Pulitzer Prize finalist, Sarah Ruhl, author of The Clean House and Eurydice. A work about how we memorialize the dead-and how that remembering changes us-it is the odyssey of a woman forced to confront her own assumptions about morality, redemption, and the need to connect in a technologically obsessed world.


Jean | Tsitsi Gumbo
Mrs. Gotlieb | Sandra Chidawanyika-Goliath
Gordon/ Dwight Gotlieb | Tafadzwa Bob Mutumbi
Hermia Gotlieb | Charmaine Mujeri
Carlotta/The Stranger | Dalma Chiwereva
Director | Julia Wharton
Playwright | Sarah Ruhl
Moderator | Danai Gurira


By Samuel Ravengai © Panorama Magazine 2013.

An American play, Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone, opened to a full house at the Alliance Francaise in Harare recently.

Sarah Ruhl, the playwright, was born in Illinois in 1974. She wanted to be a poet, but after completing her MFA in 2001 she switched to playwriting. Her play Dead Man’s Cell Phone written in 2007 premiered at Playwrights Horizons in New York York City and moved to Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington DC the same year. The play was performed in the UK in June 2011. In 2013, ALMASI Collaborative Arts produced Dead Man’s Cell Phone under the direction of Julie Wharton, spouse of the USA ambassador to Zimbabwe.

Julie Wharton is a theatre director, dramaturge and educator. She worked previously at the Harare International School as a theatre director before moving back to the USA. When she returned with her husband, she started working with ALMASI Collaborative Arts, an organization headed by Danai Gurira (Executive Producer) and co-founded by Patience Tawengwa (co-Producer).Julie Wharton’s interests are wide. She is currently working with University of Zimbabwe (UZ) BA Honours Theatre students to produce Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Dead Man’s Cell Phone was not a full production, but a public play reading. Although it was a play reading session, the characters were in costume and executed minimal movements to advance the plot.

Speaking at the inaugural launch of the public reading of plays at the UZ Alfred Beit Hall Theatre in 2012, Danai Gurira, represented by Patience Tawengwa, expounded the reasons for staged readings. She said: Staged readings are a crucial and essential part of dramatic arts development and education. Not only do they serve to give playwrights of new plays a chance to hear their words and receive feedback as they develop their works, it gives the artistic community a chance to delve into and explore great works of the past and deeply understand them as what they are: dramatic LITERARY works. … It is crucial because it helps with the development and discovery of works that stand the test of time, a key goal we have for future works in Zimbabwe.

This is, indeed, a noble vision and one hopes that ALMASI will, in future, perform staged reading of Zimbabwean plays. Public readings of plays are a rare phenomenon in Zimbabwe. The late Dambudzo Marechera used to read his poems to audiences walking along Harare’s First Street in the early 1980s. In 1984 Dambudzo Marechera was invited to do a public reading of his collection of playlets, Mind blast and parts of Kill watch at Harare’s Courtauld Theatre under the auspices of the Goethe Institute.Although he impersonated most of the characters without relying on a cast, his works were warmly received including by the then Minister of Education and Culture, Dzingai Mutumbuka, who had been invited to give opening remarks. This tradition was resuscitated late 2012 by ALMASI Collaborative Arts when they sponsored the production and public reading of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun at the University of Zimbabwe’s Alfred Beit Hall Theatre.

At the Alfred Beit Hall Theatre, Patience Tawengwa worked with some UZ Theatre Arts students and other actors from outside UZ. The director did not block the play, but relied on the sound produced by a visible operator who was part of the set. Julie Wharton read the stage directions. In the public reading of Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Julie Wharton added blocking, but did not incorporate sound effects that had worked very well at the UZ Beit Hall Theatre. Since ALMASI Collaborative Arts will continue this programme of public reading of plays, one hopes to see the strengths from previous staged readings incorporated in future reading productions.

In her opening note to the production at Alliance Francaise, Julie Wharton said: Our first goal has been to hear, consider, play with, and hear again the words that are Dead Man’s Cell Phone. What we have discovered so far is what you will hear tonight. Yes there some action, but only very skeletal, as a stage reading is a sharing of the words as we are hearing them. Indeed, the staged reading did not deviate from the director’s remark. It opened with Jean and Gordon in an almost empty cafe, with a few other characters. Gordon’s phone rings and keeps ringing, with Jean equal to task of awakening Gordon to the calls. This continues until Jean goes to investigate why its owner is not picking the call. She discovers Gordon is dead. Jean, played by Tsitsi Gumbo, a UZ Theatre graduate, suddenly phones 911 to report the death. However, calls from various accomplices keep pouring, including the Gordon’s mother, Harriet. Harriet chats with Jean, whereupon Jean discovers Gordon had a fall-out with his mother and never called her, except on the day of his death. The mother did not get the call and insists that Jean shows her the evidence. Unfortunately, she accidentally deleted the outgoing call. The story moves from the cafe, to the museum, to the stationary store, to Harriet’s house, pub, OR Tambo International Airport in South Africa and the spirit world of Hades.

After Gordon’s funeral, Jean and a guy called Dwight fall in love. Dwight begs Jean to throw away the cell phone, so they can love each other more intimately. This is despite the fact that they were brought together by the cell phone. A business colleague from Latin America, specialising in human organ sales phones on the late Gordon’s phone and Jean agrees to continue with a transaction that Gordon would have done. She travels to South Africa where she meets this colleague at the OR Tambo International Airport. A disagreement ensues at the airport and Jean is struck on the head by the colleague’s gun. She passes out and joins the late Gordon in the spirit world of Hades. She confronts Gordon and accuses him of human organ trafficking and begs him to throw them down through the clouds to the people he cheated. Gordon also comes to the realisation that his mother loved him and decides to fly to her through a subway. At this moment, Jean calls Dwight from Hades and Dwight joins Jean in the afterlife and they hug. No more cell phone! Dwight takes Jean to Harriet, in the real physical world of the living. Harriet commits suicide by throwing herself in the fire. Dwight and Jean love each other, they kiss and lights go out. The end!

Stylistically the play is modernist. Although it relies on dialogue, which is the staple for dramatic theatre, it is post-dramatic in the sense that it departs from the Freytag pyramid structure of Aristotle, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov and others and adopts a non-linear structure reminiscent of the absurd movement. The play does not necessarily follow the cause-to-effect principle all the time and does not have a spectacular climax. It has a cyclic structure that wobbles this way and that way without necessarily targeting a visible climax such as those we find in male structures. The journey of exploration in all kinds of directions is equally rewarding and sensual even without a climax. One could argue that Dead Man’s Cell Phone has a female structure (read: able to enjoy sex even if the ultimate climax is not eventually reached as opposed to a male structure which reaches fulfilment only via a climax).

The play locates itself within the magic realist genre. Magic realism is a literary genre that occurs in a naturalistic environment, yet it has a character or characters that break the rules of the natural world. In this case, the passing out of Jean and her flight to the afterlife with Gordon and Dwight breaks the rules of the natural world. While this might be considered outrageous and sheer creativity in the West where the spirit world does not form part of bourgeois fictional reality, this resonates well with Zimbabweans and Africans in general. The African cosmography permits the interpenetration of the real and spiritual worlds. This play would be more realist in Africa than it is in the West. I guess that its premiere at HIFA 2013 will be warmly received by Zimbabweans.